Training Young Scientists

On Jan. 16, 1996, I landed in Memphis, Tenn. It was balmy and in the 70s. My suitcase was missing. I spent several months conflicted over what should go into that suitcase. It ended up being a medley of objects you would find around any home – a bracelet my grandmother bought while touring Paris, some family photographs, well-worn books, a few mediocre drawing attempts, some clothes and a pair of ski pants. These were the things, I decided, an emigrant from Croatia must have to start a new life in United States. On the one hand, I arrived with less than most immigrants do; my carefully packed suitcase was lost. On the other hand, I had more than many; an invitation letter from the University of Mississippi to pursue an M.S. in biological sciences was neatly folded in my passport.

Recent public discourse has been permeated with discussions about the value of education in the 21st century, and skeptical commentaries that declare higher education a poor investment. For me the returns generated by investment in education exceeded those of a thriving hedge fund. While thousands of individuals from ex-Yugoslavia were interned at refugee camps waiting for their visas, I breezed across the European Union and United States borders because I had a college diploma. My college education allowed me to leave the bad memories and broken post-war economy behind. It allowed me to start a new life, when I wanted, and where I wanted. My position about the value of education is derived from this unwanted experience that I share with many of my college friends who are nowadays scattered throughout Western academia. It is no coincidence that many of us enthusiastically chose to work as educators.

I arrived at the University of St. Thomas in 2009. By then, I had long left William Faulkner’s Oxford behind, and moved to St. Paul where I completed a Ph.D. in fisheries science at the University of Minnesota. Before starting at UST, I was in Duluth, Minn., working as a National Academies research associate at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Throughout my science career, my research interests have centered on the responses of aquatic systems to man-made stressors. I have studied impacts of reduced oxygen levels, shore development and chemical pollutants on fish – some charismatic like sharks, some downright drab like fathead minnows. At UST, I continue in this direction.

Prior to my arrival to UST, I largely conducted research in teams composed of senior research scientists. Working at UST allows me to conduct research while training young scientists and helping them reach their career goals. My laboratory is fully staffed by undergraduate students. Frequently colleagues from larger research-based institutions wonder what it might be like to conduct research in such a lab devoid of technicians, postdocs and an echelon of graduate students. It can be challenging at times – we have high turnover rates, it is hard for undergraduate students to dedicate substantial time to research during the semester, and there are some tasks that are not suitable for a student’s level of expertise (e.g., grant proposal writing); nevertheless, in spite of and perhaps because of the drive necessary to overcome these challenges, my lab has been capable of securing competitive funding from a variety of external sources (including U.S. EPA, U.S. Geological Survey), and delivering exciting research products in a timely fashion.

Over the last four years my students and I were able to contribute to two large research projects, and have co-written several peer-reviewed research publications in leading journals in our field. One project we recently completed in collaboration with scientists from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, U.S. Geological Survey and St. Cloud State University aimed to evaluate the contribution of 25 wastewater treatment plants to the pollution of Minnesota streams. We found that wastewater effluents play a significant role as inputs of hormones (such as estrogens) and a variety of commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals into Minnesota waterways (you can hear more about this research here). This finding is of concern, as it has been shown that exposure to pharmaceuticals may have detrimental effects on behavior, survival and reproduction of fish (see article “Wastewater Chemicals Dampen Fish Fervor” spotlighting our research); furthermore, there are concerns for human health, as we found these chemicals in ground and surface waters that serve as our drinking water sources.

As you might imagine, this kind of research takes one to some unpleasant excursions. Our field trips consist of collecting samples from septic tanks and wading in sewage effluents. For example, our Chicago-based research project took us to the deceivingly exotic-sounding Bubbly Creek. Its name is derived from the gases that visibly bubble out of the creek bed – a result of the decomposition of animal remains that were thrown into the creek in the early 20th century by meatpacking businesses, which were described in the Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. While not pleasant, these are eye-opening encounters that allow our students to personally experience the magnitude of environmental destruction and develop ways of living that counter it.

What is particularly unexpected about my research students is that the majority do not plan to pursue careers in environmental science. For some this experience opens opportunities to contribute to environmental sustainability research before they dive into health careers, while some join to gain experience with the research process and methodologies I use. While it may seem incredulous to a non-scientist, many of the techniques we use in our laboratory to assess composition and the effects of the wastewater also are used in biomedical fields. For example, we use genetically modified human breast cancer cell lines to measure hormones (estrogens) in environmental samples. Because some of the breast cancers grow better and faster in the presence of female hormone estrogen, monitoring proliferation of breast cancer cells can be used to detect and identify chemicals that may enhance cancer growth (such as environmental pollutants) or those that inhibit it (such as anti-cancer drugs). Thus, these research opportunities not only provide valuable experiences for pre-health students as they allow training in sophisticated biomedical techniques but also stimulate them to make connections between environmental and human health.

The most tangible and readily quantifiable measurement of our impact as educators is to explore where our students go after the graduation. I am delighted to report that all of my research students achieved their career goals shortly after graduation from UST. Some have gone on to work in environmental consulting (e.g., Ecolab, U.S. EPA-contractors), some are pursuing professional degrees, such as an M.D. (Mayo Medical Schools, Nebraska Medical Center), a D.D.S. (U of Southern CA), or a Pharm. D. (University of Minnesota). The others have opted to pursue Ph.D.’s in immunology (Mayo Medical School) and molecular biology (University of California, Riverside). I hope that they, too, spend at least a portion of their careers facilitating the successes of other young academics. There is nothing more pleasing than knowing that these young, enthusiastic people were able to fulfill their goals, and that our contribution to their education facilitated this.

Many other unique opportunities emerge in the liberal arts setting that UST offers. We are well-positioned to cross-disciplinary boundaries. For example, one of my research students has traveled to Croatia with UST’s Vanča Schrunk to participate in archeology research and to study ancient and current water use practices; furthermore, the university’s dedication to service and the common good has motivated me to work on the inclusion of environmental justice in my research program. All in all, research is a fulfilling, ever-changing and exciting activity.

P.S. In case you were wondering about that suitcase, it arrived about three months later with stickers from many different airports, including one in Africa.

Dalma Martinović-Weigelt is assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.